In the wake of the popularity of Atari Inc.’s coin-op video game machine, Battlezone (1980), a first-person futuristic tank combat simulation, the US Army approached the company to develop a version for its Bradley fighting vehicle, an armored infantry combat vehicle that went into service starting in 1981. Beyond the existence of prototypes bearing titles like Bradley Trainer and Army Battlezone, little documentation exists at public institutions (e.g., Stanford University, The Strong) on Atari’s development of its combat simulator or the army’s plans for its installation on US bases.1 Was it meant for training purposes? Envisioned as a recruitment device at the height of arcade game play? Or was it simply seen as army-themed leisurely play for a breakroom or at a PX? One thing, however, is known: the person who did the industrial design work on the cabinet for Army Battlezone was Mike Querio, an industrial designer at Atari. Querio trained in industrial design at San Jose State University in the mid-1970s. During his senior year, he obtained a paid internship with Atari’s coin-op division in 1976. Upon graduation in 1977, he went full-time during a period when the company’s industrial design division was experiencing significant growth due to the acquisition of Atari Inc. by Warner Communications Inc. and sales from the release of the Atari VCS [video computer system]. Querio designed cabinets for: Atari Basketball (1979); Video Pinball (1979); Battlezone (1980), including the military conversion Army Battlezone (1981); the cocktail table for Warlords (1981); and Tempest (1981), the last cabinet he worked on before moving into Atari’s research and design division until his departure from the company in 1984. ROMchip editors Raiford Guins and Henry Lowood sat down with Querio at his home in Walnut Creek, California, in July 2019 to learn more about his time at Atari and direct involvement in Army Battlezone.
This interview has been edited for length and readability. The full transcript will be deposited in the Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries.
Raiford Guins: You did your industrial design training at San Jose State University. Could you give us a little background on your decision to attend San Jose State at that time, and why study industrial design?
Mike Querio: … I was practical. I just was going to be taking my general education and why not just stay home and go to the local school (Diablo Valley College in Pleasant Hill, California), which I did. I was taking prearchitecture classes along with art classes. And about that time, my lottery number came up in the draft, and unfortunately it was low—it was a number like seventeen. And soon after that, I got my draft notice, and I realized I’d better do something or I’m going to be in the army. And so I was fortunate. Went to the local recruiting offices, in those days in Oakland, California, and the Coast Guard was one of the places. … And I was one of the lucky ones that the Coast Guard selected. That recruiter told me he had no shortage of volunteers. And so that sort of derailed my education for a short time. I chose to go into the reserves, which was a six-year contract, because it only required six months of active duty, meaning I could get back to my studies relatively quickly. And, of course, that is what I did for the next several years; I did the weekends once a month and summers. When I came back from that six months of duty, I picked up where I left off and that’s when I had a change of heart. I had always been the kind in school who was drawing cars in his binder, in my notebook, and maybe instead of paying attention. I’m still a car guy, always have been, and I love design and I thought why not meld the two together? I said I want to go after transportation design, which I did. So I started looking around and, of course, the premiere school for that, at least back then and I think still today is the Pasadena Art Center School of Design. I looked at some others. Honestly, that one had more to do probably with cost. And I had just heard about a relatively new Industrial Design Department that opened at San Jose State. It wasn’t that old when I arrived in—probably ’73. Wayne Champion and Jack Crist, I believe, were the professors that started the department. Industrial design was an interdepartmental type of a major—a little bit of engineering, little bit of art, little bit of materials and processes, some industrial studies classes. I never spent much time in any one building. The various classes were just spread around the campus. But anyways, I took my portfolio, which primarily was artwork, artsy type work, and a little bit of architectural drawing. I remember taking it down and showing it to Jack Crist. He was less than overwhelmed. He just said well, you know, you’re a little light but yeah, we’ll let you in. See what you can do. So that is how I ended up at San Jose State in the Industrial Design Department. That was the path.
RG: You were at SJSU during a period that many people look back on and cite as a real golden age for the program in industrial design. In a previous interview with me, you’ve said that you took a lot of classes in the Art Department and you also took business classes as well. So industrial design at SJSU was really a mixed disciplinary program. Is that correct?
MQ: Yeah. I can’t recall if it was required but—as an example—I took a class on small business management. It was very interesting. The thinking there was well, you know, many designers start out and open a small consulting office of their own. There’s your small business. You need to know something about how to run the business. But yeah, when I was at Diablo Valley College at the Community College, I took a couple of accounting courses. My parents both were accounting graduates and they always impressed upon me—they said it doesn’t matter what business you’re in, at the end of the day, it still comes down to dollars and you need to know something about credits and debits. So I did take a few courses, yeah, on the business side of things. But I really enjoyed the multidisciplinary aspects of industrial design. I truly enjoyed—I can’t remember the professor’s name in the Industrial Studies Department—he had a class called Materials and Processes. And it was very interesting. So we’d spend some time on metals and then we’d spend some time on lubricants and we’d spend some time on plastics and polymers. Just to give you a little overview—and then how things are made. I always felt that was one of my strengths is that I was interested in designing new and different things but also with the mindset that I’m spending somebody’s money and this thing has to be built and it has to be made and, at some point, it has to make a profit. So I always was interested in how to make things. Everything from something as subtle as, you know, why do you need two degrees of draft angle for that vacuum form part? Well, you know, if you only have one degree, it may not come off the mold and those sorts of things. I was already thinking of how am I going to make this. How’s it going to be built? It’s going to be somebody else’s job to make this thing. And I don’t want them to be swearing at the guy that designed this thing, you know. So I always was trying to take into account people on the assembly line and those that were going to have to build whatever design I dreamed up.
RG: So, in your final year, you went to Atari on an internship. Correct?
MQ: I did. My last semester, in my senior year. In the previous summer, I’d done an internship at a small consulting office called Dezign, with a Z instead of an S, in Palo Alto—Peter Lough and Jim Zeisler learned some interesting things about a design consulting office, a small one—literally just two guys. I did that one summer. And then the following year, my internship was with Atari. And, of course, as you know, much of the Atari staff in industrial design coin-op were San Jose State graduates. I interviewed with Pete Takaichi …
RG: How old were you at that point? That was ’76?
MQ: I graduated in ’77. So that would have been the fall semester starting in September of ’76.
RG: And your age at that time?
MQ: That time—in ’76, I would have been twenty-three.
RG: Twenty-three. And on the campus and within the program, was there any talk about Atari among industrial design students, knowing that Peter Takaichi and Regan Chang, who came out of your department, were both working at Atari. Was there any kind of buzz about the company if you can recall?
MQ: I don’t recall any buzz about it. And honestly right now I can’t recall who—if it was Wayne Champion or if it was Jack Crist or someone else who pointed me toward Atari. I know I had interviewed with Tektronix around that same time. Interesting work. They were up in Beaverton, Oregon, as I recall, but certainly a different kind of industrial design. It was much more technical and pretty much, at the time anyways, seemed like it was just designing knobs and such, you know.
RG: In those early days of the internship, what were some of the tasks that you were doing?
MQ: The one that comes to mind was Pete [Takaichi] just said to me, give me some concept sketches on joystick handles. Any material. I don’t want to limit you. Just, you know, sketch up some different ideas for grips and joystick handles, that kind of thing. I do remember that. Honestly, beyond that, I don’t recall. You’ve seen the sketches or the renderings I did of—and I don’t remember when I did those—of those cocktail tables [fig. 1]. Cocktail-table concepts where Pete said—because, of course, primarily we designed those in wood and steel and sheet metal—just sit down, give me a bunch of concepts on designing cocktail tables out of fiberglass, meaning, of course, three-dimensional.
Concept rendering for cocktail table cabinet design. Mike Querio, Atari Inc., c. 1976. (Courtesy of The Strong)
RG: There is no mention of what games they would be used for, just the actual cabinet?
MQ: No, just basically you have two player, four player, you know, just give me some ideas. I don’t know if that was during my internship now or if that came later. I can’t recall.
RG: Okay, one question before we move specifically into Army Battlezone. Can you just state which games you worked on while you were at Atari?
MQ: Well, the ones I can remember are typically the ones that went into production. As I recall, the earliest game that went into production that I remember is Atari Basketball [fig. 2]. And following Basketball, I believe it was Video Pinball. And I think, in the right order, then Battlezone. Somewhere right in there was the four-player Warlords cocktail table. … I didn’t do the upright. I didn’t do the arcade game. I believe Mike Jang might have done the upright, but I did the four-player cocktail.
Atari Basketball in production at Atari. Mike Querio, industrial designer, c. 1979. (Courtesy of The Strong)
RG: So you went from Video Pinball, 1979, then Battlezone, 1980. And then Tempest was 1981.
MQ: And then Tempest was ’81. Tempest, I think, was the last game I did that went into production. It was sometime after that that I was looking to do something else. I’d been doing the coin-op games for a while. So that’s when I moved over to R&D, working for Roy Machamer.
Henry Lowood: So you were assigned to Battlezone in 1980. Could you just walk through being assigned to Battlezone. How did that conversation go?
MQ: Well, I can’t say it was terribly complicated. I didn’t generally ask Pete’s motivation, you know. Obviously, he came to me and said hey, there’s this tank game I want you to work on. I honestly don’t recall anything unusual about it. We had done, of course, tank games prior, you know. Tank 8, Ultra Tank. So I was just thinking okay, another tank game. Prior to that, I think I had seen the X-Y monitors in the labs. I had never worked on an X-Y monitor game until Battlezone [fig. 3]. So that was real interesting. And of course when Pete—I don’t recall the exact conversation—but when he said to me, you know, there might be some budget in this game for a molded piece, that got my excitement up because all of a sudden I could work on something that wasn’t just flat. It wasn’t particle board, plywood, or sheet metal. That was probably one of the most fun projects because it was the first time I worked in vacuum form plastic. Well, not the first time. The grips on Video Pinball were the first but they were so much simpler.
Battlezone in production at Atari. Mike Querio, industrial designer, c. 1980. (Courtesy of The Strong)
HL: Do you know why the budget was there for that?
MQ: You know, I don’t. That was probably above my pay grade. But I was just glad that they considered it.
HL: So what did you do? You get a new project. There’s a little bit of technology you haven’t used before, the X-Y aspect. Did you go straight to sketches or did you learn more about the technology first? Did you look at other games? What did you do next?
MQ: We had done Asteroids by that time, so I was, you know, certainly familiar, in fact, probably played a lot of it in the lab, you know. But the team leader, as I recall, was Morgan Hoff. Morgan was a really nice guy. We got along well. I liked Morgan and talked to him for a bit about what his vision for the game was. I can remember early on, you know, what little I knew about tanks and tank warfare, probably just the movies I used to watch. I just remember the guys peeping through a small window in the tank and working those two control sticks and working the treads, and literally, that was about it. So, with that, I just sat about doing concept sketches of what I thought a tank game could be like if I was allowed to.
HL: So you get up to speed, you start designing the game. Who did you work with? That was [Morgan] Hoff probably on the interface between game programming, design, and what you actually did on the game. And then there was the other step of going from what you did to manufacturing. Who was your contact on that side of it?
MQ: Morgan, of course, I think was the lead. I don’t recall the hardware engineer. But in industrial design, we had the designers and then we also had the draftsmen. And, in effect, I would do what we called shop drawings. So I was on large vellum. I was laying out, usually in side panel view, everything from every individual cleat and panel—the shape. Of course, once a concept design had been sort of approved, yeah, let’s move down that direction and build a prototype. So the shop drawings I would do were literally just on legal size, just photocopied paper. Sometimes they didn’t have to be to scale because the metal shop and the wood shop could read those directly. And then those were, in many cases, given to the draftsman to do proper drawings. Sometimes I would do them myself but the guy that I remember working with the most, I don’t recall on Battlezone, Dave Cook. It might have been Jim Pagura.
RG: His name comes up in a lot of documentation around Tempest and Battlezone.
MQ: Yeah, Tempest—Jim definitely was my right-hand man for getting the drawing package on Tempest. And I think he came on board when I was doing Battlezone. He hadn’t been there as long as Dave Cook or Wayne Sauter. He and I worked really well together. In fact, I think I got an indirect compliment from I think it was Dan Van Elderen. Dan just said the stuff Mike and Jim do, it’s good stuff. I know I got a compliment from manufacturing [about] Tempest, on thinking through the subassemblies. And thinking through something as simple as the cardboard bezels that we’d use around the monitor. Of course, we’d have some graphics on them. They were die-cut. Typically there were just cleats on the two side panels and they’d mount the monitor and then they’d—I watched them—take the cardboard bezel and kind of move it around on the monitor and then, at some point, staple it on the left and right sides to a couple of cleats. I just thought that left too much discretion for the assembler. Why not put another little cleat as a little sort of backstop and die-cut the cardboard? And so he just sat it on there and just, until it stopped, till it hit the little cleat and then it could just sit there while he stapled it. It would go on straight and he never had to think about which way it goes. For the same reason I would try to do bolt patterns that were asymmetrical. For instance, if I recall correctly, where I stored the footstep in Battlezone, in its shipping position, I had to move the coin box to one side, along with the pedestal that the coin box sat on and the coin door so I could make room next to it, so I could store the step. I had to design the step. I wanted it removable. It made the shipping container smaller. It added two more feet so that Battlezone had six leveling legs instead of the typical four. And I thought that was a good thing. It gave me a wider base pattern because the cabinet was probably one of the tallest we had ever done. And, frankly, you could grab those, I mean, if you’re dumb enough, you could grab those two joysticks and maybe, if you were big enough, you could, you know, pull the thing down on yourself. So I thought, you know, let’s add two more feet here on that foot, it will just give it that much more stability. But when I went to mount it in there, as I recall, you have a fifty-fifty chance of putting this thing in right or putting it in upside down. So let’s make the bolts asymmetrical so that it can only go in one way. Little things like that.
RG: I’m going to put another question into this series of questions really quick. Do you ever recall in any documentation you had when you were working on Battlezone, anybody referring to it as “Future Tank”?
MQ: No, I don’t. That doesn’t ring a bell.
RG: Key Games did Ultra Tank. I think that was ’77. But one of the things I—was recently reading about and looking at a lot of Atari space theme games from the ʼ80s is that all the space theme games used color vector monitors. Asteroids and Lunar Lander were exceptions—but post those games, everything was color, electrographic monitors. And one of the reasons they turned to that is the blackness of the screen for space. Interdepartmental memos on the development of Battlezone appear to understand the game as space themed. Did that ever have an influence on making the tanks angular? That form certainly brings a space-like theme into the game. Was the emphasis on space ever part of your own design process for the cabinet?
MQ: No, I don’t think I really was thinking space primarily. I really was trying to, as much as I understood tanks, immerse somebody in that tank environment. A futuristic tank? Most definitely. Most definitely. Yeah, I wasn’t looking to do a retro vintage, you know, army-green cabinet. There have, of course, been games like that. No, it always had a futuristic feel to it. Even to this day, the vector shapes that we came up with—definitely the wedge shapes— have that sort of futuristic lunar landscape.
HL: Let’s turn to Army Battlezone. You were involved with the Army Battlezone project. How did that assignment occur? How did you find out about it and who tapped you on the shoulder? [Fig. 4]
Army Battlezone prototype photographed at Atari by Mike Querio, c. 1980. (Courtesy of Mike Querio)
MQ: Again, it was always Pete Takaichi. Something obviously had been going on with the army and I wasn’t privy to those initial contacts, you know. I had heard sort of through the company that there had been interest from the army. And I guess Pete thought I was the logical one to get involved. I can’t recall exactly what else I was working on at the time, but I had the time or I could make the time. And so he came to me with this new idea of doing this sort of simulator. That was pretty exciting because that was definitely out of the box, something different.
HL: Nobody ever explained to you how this was initiated?
MQ: You know, they didn’t. All I do recall—and I can’t validate this—was that there was a camp, there was a tank training center I was told. And apparently one of the Battlezone games was placed in the regular rec center—yeah, it was in there. And somebody—some officer at that training facility took note of a lot of GIs standing in line to play Battlezone, you know, with quarters in their pockets. The story I was told is that they thought well, maybe if we’re going to have our guys just sort of standing there having fun, you know, maybe we can teach them something at the same time. Again, I can’t validate it, but that’s what I was told.
HL: With whom did you interact on the project? Was it strictly army? It wasn’t FMC [Food Machinery Corporation, manufacturers of the Bradley fighting vehicle]? Were they also involved in it?
MQ: I don’t recall my contacts being FMC. Yeah, I recall them being army.
HL: So they were thinking in terms of training at that point?
MQ: Yeah, from the very beginning, I was told we’re not just doing this for fun. We want to use this for training purposes.
RG: I want to raise a question on that very subject. So here’s a photograph—this is one you took, Mike—of Army Battlezone. I’ve often heard that Army Battlezone was used as a training simulator, but my question is, if so, why have George Opperman’s graphics division invest in side cabinet graphics and have an attraction marquee? [Fig. 5]
Side panel artwork detail of Army Battlezone . Photographed at Atari by Mike Querio, c. 1980. (Courtesy of Mike Querio)
MQ: Because that’s what George does. That’s what George Opperman does. He does great graphics. You know, you’re right. I mean, to look at it now, I’m thinking wait, if we’re doing a trainer, why would you—
RG: Why package it in an arcade-style package?
MQ: Well, you know, why not because I was also told, look, we want them to have fun but we want them to learn something while they’re doing it. The impression I always got was it was going to have a coin box. I mean, if this was purely a simulator, you’d eliminate the coin box and just hit the start button.
HL: So it would be in the PX or something like that.
MQ: Yeah, exactly. So you’re right. You know, it never got far along in its life to really flesh out these sorts of details. But, then again, the graphics could have just been a decision to make it look really good. It will show better when we would show it to the army.
HL: I’ve worked a lot on history of military simulation and that kind of thing. That’s probably why I’m here. This is early for what became the training technology that the army and other branches adopted from computer games. But there were the link simulators and things like that, which were for the time very immersive. This, at first glance, is not immersive. I mean, in the sense that you would think of a trainer being immersive, there’s no attempt to put you in the vehicle, right?
MQ: That’s a good point. I was never was asked—that I can recall—to do a sit-down cabinet. No, it was always just, let’s do an upright. Perhaps it was just to prove the concept before going to something elaborate, I don’t know.
HL: There was another thread in some of the later work that different people on the military side did with the entertainment industry—different times, different vehicles, but there was a theme that entertainment is what’s missing, that what the army normally does in its training with simulators we have are really boring. And so they said, let’s get Hollywood scriptwriters to work with us. They did that at one point. They tried different things that would, as you say, get people to stand in line, want to do it and possibly they would then be willing to give up a little bit of the fidelity to the real-world situation in order just to have people get what they’re going to get from it willingly, sort of enjoy it. Did you have conversations with anyone on topics like that, about what you were trying to get whoever was using this to do and how to pull them in?
MQ: Well, with this sort of a game—I call it a game—we were working like we always do, both ends to the middle. I mean, the gameplay is being worked on in the lab and I’m there for those various meetings. And, at some point, once you have some gameplay, they’d usually get industrial design involved. We weren’t always at the front end because I took my cues from the gameplay. It wasn’t the other way around. Of course, it’s always an electrical engineering-centric type business but pretty much, as I recall, my charge was: Mike, we need this to simulate as close as possible the experience, the environment, in a Bradley fighting vehicle. For instance, George Opperman’s graphics. I had no one put it there. That was strictly George or one of his team. Pretty much I focused on making this within the cabinet. That’s why it still has a coin box, et cetera. Within that cabinet, make that thing as close as you can—I guess as any upright cabinet can be—as opposed to a full immersion in sit down.
HL: Two questions about that. Number one, was it somebody from the army or somebody from Atari telling you that? And secondly, what was your response? How did you respond to that idea to make it as close as possible? What things did you do?
MQ: I didn’t have any problem with that. It was basically Atari. It was probably Pete. It was Pete telling me this is what we need. And I went well, okay. I mean, I can redesign anything but you have got to show me what it is I’m being asked to simulate. And that’s when the visit was arranged.
HL: So talk about the visit a little bit. How did that happen and what happened?
MQ: Well, we were discussing it, and I said, you know, am I going to just work from pictures or what’s the deal here? I’ll do whatever you want me to do, but he said no. Coincidentally, FMC at that time had the contract for the Bradley [fighting vehicle] and it was being developed right there I think on Coleman Avenue in San Jose, just south of the airport. And back then, of course, they still had a big patch of ground that was the proving grounds. You used to be able to drive on Coleman and every now and then look out and see some tank kicking up dust right there. Unthinkable now. I had heard of FMC but I had no idea what was going on at that facility, of course. Yeah, it was probably Pete who just said okay, on such and such day, you know, a car’s coming for you.
It was literally just like out of the movies. There was a big, black sedan. He [Pete] said, you can bring a pad of paper and a pencil and a tape measure. I said okay. He says you’re going to take all the notes you need and just come back with that and then see what you can come up with. So the day was arranged and, as I recall, it was a big, black Ford Crown Victoria. I can’t recall now if the driver was civilian or military. I don’t recall. But I do remember it had a car phone, literally the old fashioned, complete Western, you know, Bell System type handset with a coiled cord right there on the center console. It was a short drive, of course, from Sunnyvale to FMC’s facility. He gets on the phone and dials a few numbers and I hear him talk to somebody and the rolling gate just opens up and we drive onto the property. Gate closes behind us and he’s still on the phone. He’s talking to somebody and then the next thing I know, an overhead door on this warehouse—which is concrete—tilts up. This overhead door is opening up. It’s bright daylight and I can’t really see inside because it’s very dark. The car just pulls into the warehouse and then the door goes down behind us.
It took my eyes a while to adjust to the light. It felt like I was in a movie. I get out of the car. I don’t recall how many people I met, but at that point in time I did see army personnel. I was introduced to one or two, as I recall, I think a lieutenant. As my eyes are adjusting now to the light, the inside of the warehouse was relatively dark. I don’t know if they did that just because I was coming. Back in those days, the outdoor lighting typically you’d see in parking lots and such was that yellow light, sodium vapor lighting. They had the same kind of light fixtures inside the warehouse. So it had kind of an odd glow. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I saw a variety of tank chassis in various states of either assembly or disassembly, lining along one wall. Opposite them was at least two officer trailers. And come to find out, that’s where apparently a lot of the designing was going on in those office trailers. I thought it was rather odd; obviously, they had pulled these officer trailers into this what appeared to be a vacant warehouse and they had gone to the trouble of putting aluminum foil on the windows of the office trailers, even though we’re inside a windowless warehouse. You know, I took note of that.
RG: You sketched that?
MQ: So that was it. I was in there with a sketch pad, pencil, and the tape measure.
RG: I’m assuming, then, Takaichi was told no cameras are allowed.
MQ: That’s right. Yes, he told me I couldn’t bring—I was sort of the staff photographer—yeah, I wasn’t allowed to bring a camera.
RG: Now you were the only who made that—that particular trip?
MQ: To my understanding, I was the only one who ever—that ever did that, from a design standpoint. Now certainly there may have been others, you know, maybe Pete, maybe others. As I recall, I don’t remember—was the lead on that Rick Moncrief?
RG: I don’t know.
MQ: That’s what sticks in my mind was that Rick was the—the lead engineer.
RG: I mean, as you can imagine, there’s very little documentation on this game.
HL: The Bradley was visible when you saw the two trailers?
MQ: Oh yeah, they were there. There were several of them.
HL: Okay, they weren’t behind some curtain or something like that?
MQ: No, no. No, they were there. And so they introduced me to, I believe, a lieutenant. They knew I was coming and, of course, what I was there to do. Other than that, I don’t know what else they knew. They said I understand you’re going to be designing [and] you want to see the inside of the tank and the controls and the environment? I said, yep, that’s why I’m here. It’s my charge to try to take that and do what I can in the confines of a video game. He says, okay, and he introduced me to an army, I don’t recall his name, gentleman. He had a camera, and he said, when you’re in the tank, you point to something—to a view that you want. He will take the photograph. Then we will send you what we can. Obviously, he was just the photographer. Someone else was going to review the photographs and decide what they could release. So I remember pointing to, for instance, the control, the main control. There were various dials and knobs and some views to the right, a view or two to the left. I don’t recall ever focusing on the floor, in terms of any foot controls. It was primarily the viewport and then the controls above it on either side and then the hand control.
HL: So you were getting what you needed? As a designer of the cabinet and so forth, what would you be looking for inside the vehicle? I guess you knew what Battlezone is already because you have the arcade game. So you know what kind of view you’ve got, more or less. So it’s trying to see, if I’m in the vehicle, how that view translates. Is the view in the existing game basically what I’m going to see or is it going to be different? Is that the kind of thing you were looking for?
MQ: Yeah, it was. For the most part, I wasn’t quite as concerned about the view through the portal because I knew that was going to be more Morgan and the electrical engineers with the gameplay. It’s going to be on the screen. You know, industrial designers, like anybody on the team, we might have had an opinion, we were always discussing things, but when it came to the gameplay, it really was engineering and marketing primarily. I knew I had to come back. I had to work within the confines of my Battlezone cabinet. I knew that much. I wasn’t looking at doing a sit-down environment. It was, “Okay, Mike, try to do an army version with what we’ve got.” And so, to that extent, I was just focusing on the three-dimensional space that that tank operator was sitting in. I was told to focus on the—I believe they probably told me then because I knew very little—the key controls, the key components—things like, first of all, identifying friend or foe. The other big part of the—I’ll call it gameplay—was ordnance choice. You know, it’s kind of like if you see a nail, grab your hammer. It’s that kind of thing. You have got to choose the correct ordnance because the Bradley—like I’m sure others—could have multiple types of ordnance. So there was a selector for that. I kind of used it as my center point, just literally my body, my center of my chest, and I started using my tape measure and measuring basically distance to a control and then roughly a horizon in front of me. And it was like, well, how many inches away is it? It’s usually, of course, within arm’s reach. And then how far was it above the horizon or below the horizon, because my goal was to really try to put that control right where this GI in training would expect it to be. Again, trying to, in effect, distill a multimillion-dollar tank down into a cabinet. So that was really what I documented. Dimensions, sketched up some of the major controls that they pointed out to me. They said these are the ones that you need to pay attention to. I’m sure there was all sorts of other stuff in there behind me or that just wasn’t necessary.
HL: I suppose, in a different context, like if you were designing a commercial game about being in a vehicle like that, fidelity would have been a bad thing because they wouldn’t have wanted details of the game to get out. But since you were designing for use by military, you wanted it to be as accurate as possible, right?
MQ: Right, because they wouldn’t know if I did it wrong. Nobody else at Atari would know because, as far as I know, I was the only one to sit in one.
RG: I just pulled up a picture of the actual interface we’re talking about in Army Battlezone. This is a better photograph. What’s different in this compared to Battlezone? I know the controls are different but what about the view-finding space? This is meant to resemble the kind of perspective you would have from the Bradley, I’m assuming, right? [Fig. 6]
Bezel and control-panel detail of Army Battlezone . Photographed at Atari by Mike Querio, c. 1980. (Courtesy of Mike Querio)
MQ: I know my charge was, hey, we don’t have the money, we’re not tooling up for a whole ʼnother vacuum-form part. We’ve got to use the Battlezone part, at least—
RG: This was Atari not the army?
MQ: This was Atari. Oh yeah, yeah. This, again, at this point in time, was just a prototype. I mean, maybe if the project had gone on longer, there would have been something custom done. But, for the purposes of demonstrating to the army what those kids in Sunnyvale can do. I had to work with what I had. So there’s those two large windows on either side of the player’s viewport. And those were the panels that I then, you know, removed and replaced to basically put the controls. I had to work within the confines of that vacuum-formed housing part. That’s where I put the controls in the location to the operator as close as possible to what I saw that day.
RG: Continuing the story we’re talking about right now, when you developed this, were there further exchanges with the army? Were they approving your design at any point? Did they have any input on the design you were doing?
MQ: You know, I don’t recall having like a redesign or a rev 2. I know—I’m sure it was Morgan that told me what potentiometers or knobs or selectors were going to be, and I just had to provide, you know, the holes and the mount for them. I don’t know that we ever went to any kind of a review. All I know is, I wasn’t present at any kind of a presentation to the army. I don’t recall getting it back and being told to, you know, make these changes.
RG: So is it fair to say then that unlike say a normal coin-op game that goes through all the different reviews and steps about the design process, this had its own kind of custom-made or unique design process to it?
MQ: Yeah, I would say so. It definitely didn’t fall into the same sort of a routine. And I don’t recall there being a lot of gatherings.
RG: There were no marketing reviews?
MQ: I don’t remember. I don’t remember Gene Lipkin walking in, you know, and saying I like it or I don’t like it. No.
RG: I have another image I’ll show both of you. You kept the bottom piece. I mentioned this earlier—the extended kind of bottom pattern. [Figs. 4 and 5]
MQ: Yeah, the removable step.
RG: And this was maintained on Army Battlezone as well?
MQ: Yeah, well, first of all, it was still part of the cabinet. We never got so far as to designing up, maybe redesigning, the cabinet completely. So it was part of Army Battlezone, so we certainly left it. And the other reason would have been for stability, you know. And, then again, there might have been short GIs too.
RG: Army Battlezone utilized Battlezone cabinets but the actual interface and the front, vacuum from bezel, those were different to meet the actual Bradley trainer?
MQ: No, the plastic vacuum-form housing was the same one we used on Battlezone. If we did anything, we may have modified it. But it was a stock part.
RG: A stock part based on your original Battlezone design?
MQ: Yeah, right. It would have been off the shelf and then I would have, you know, I would have modified it in the shop.
RG: Was it a revelation to see the controls in an actual fighting vehicle as opposed to the stick controls used on Tank?
MQ: Yeah, of course. We all knew. I came to Atari, they had already done some of the Tank games. Of course, they were the caterpillar sort of, you know, dozer, tractor controls. Yeah, and they were World War II vintage. You know, I had the old John Wayne movies. I remember climbing in there going what the heck is that? It was definitely not what I was expecting. Our Mechanical Engineering Department did that from my photographs and my sketches—free hand.
RG: So you sketched this based on the sketches [from the hangar]?
MQ: I sketched that and then I’m sure the army I think did give me a photograph of that, yeah. And so with that, who was that—was that Jerry Lichac? [Fig. 7]
Controller detail of Army Battlezone . Photographed at Atari by Mike Querio, c. 1980. (Courtesy of Mike Querio)
RG: Jerry Lichac and Otto De Runtz were the two names that I’m aware of.
MQ: And, at that point, I didn’t do anything short of the control panel and—and that’s what they came up with for the first army version.
RG: Now this particular control was used on another Atari game as well, correct?
MQ: Well, I mean, it was eventually sort of I’ll just say simplified, kind of dumbed down a little, and yes, and it went on the shelf after Army Battlezone, went basically nowhere. That part just sat on the shelf—that design. But yeah, it was resurrected for Star Wars. And it was the perfect control for Star Wars. It worked out really well.
HL: I have just a question about that. So you walk in, there’s a different control and you sketch it and you do all of that. I don’t know how far the project went after this but it seems logical to me that now that you have a different controller, it has to go back to the game designer or somebody has to figure out the interface between this different control and the game, right? Is that—how would that happen, if it even did happen with this game, if it did even go that far? How would that be communicated back and what effects would that have?
MQ: Well, I mean, that’s a very complicated control. I was amazed at how complex, at least for me anyway, that Bradley control was. It, of course, turned left and right like let’s say a steering wheel would. And then that one hand grip you see in this photograph [fig. 7], the left hand grip; there was, of course, another one on the other side just opposite it. And those would tilt forward and back.
You can see that button there that would be under your left thumb in this photograph. Yes, and then there was a trigger under your index and middle finger that would be the upper trigger. And then there’s a lower trigger that’s operated by your two lower fingers, your fourth and fifth.
RG: Okay, so you had three different ways of firing?
MQ: I don’t know that they’re all for firing. I can’t honestly tell you now what they were for but it was—you were busy. I mean, it was your upper two fingers, your lower two fingers, and your thumb and, at the same time, you’re tilting forward and back and steering left and right, never taking your hands off the grip.
RG: I can’t think of another game using a controller that would have that many different buttons housed on it. Usually there’s a fire button for that time period.
MQ: I mean, you might find two on a grip but I doubt you’d find much more than that in most video games.
RG: In the actual vehicle, the driver and the gunner are different controls, right?
MQ: You know, I don’t know that—I don’t know that for sure. I mean, this one had enough controls on it to do it all. If I am not mistaken, the knobs and some of the buttons I chose were all within arm’s reach of that seat. There was a range finder. All I can recall is that in profile, it was kind of triangular.
RG: There’s a series of more buttons on the side.
MQ: Those buttons to the lower right of the controller, I believe those are for ordnance selection. Can’t recall.
RG: So you can select the projectiles you were shooting.
MQ: At the time, I had to learn a little bit about the Bradley. There was a video—a film I could watch that I recall. There was incendiary ordnance. There was armor piercing. There was high explosive. Yeah, high explosive and then, of course, I believe the Bradley could be fitted with TOW [tube-launched, optically tracked, wire-to-command-link] missiles. They were the steer by wire.
MQ: I know those are some of the ordnance selections. And it was all about, I was told, gameplay is first decision, friend or foe. Second is ordnance and then you work on range.
HL: So, again, you come back to Atari and say, hey guys, guess what, this is the controller.
MQ: Here are my sketches. Here’s a photograph. And I’m sure Jerry and those guys went holy, you know, how am I going to—how are we going to do this?
RG: It’s not the steering wheel.
MQ: It isn’t. Those guys were—you know, they were good. And it all mounted on a single shaft.
HL: Did they then work on the game, and then that came back to you to do the physical design to reflect what they then did to make the game different?
MQ: Well, as you can see in my control panel, it was very basic, just a flat panel. And, for the most part, they told me, you know, what hole and mount they needed for it to be stable. Beyond that, I didn’t have to do much. The hard work was the mechanical engineers trying to simulate, I’m sure, a very, very expensive control. And we had to be able to do it for like a buck ninety-five.
RG: This seems to be a rare instance as well because everything I’ve learned from you over the years is that it’s the game—the game engineer is deciding the controls and your job on the control panel is to make space for those controls. But here, the industrial designer, based upon what you witnessed, you’re influencing the controls, you’re setting the controls for this particular game.
MQ: Yeah, exactly. FMC designed it to the army’s approval, and then I brought that back to Atari and said, guys, here’s what we’re being asked to simulate.
RG: How long did it take you to design the cabinet?
MQ: It didn’t take long. It didn’t take long. I mean, probably 80 percent of the cabinet was the same. I imagine I probably did all that within a week or two.
RG: Did you keep development notes that you’ve kept on all your other games, because you were quite meticulous in documenting your weekly reports? Oddly, unless this is another kind of army intervention, I can’t find those anywhere.
MQ: I don’t think so. This project definitely had more of an ad hoc feel. It was certainly more organic. It didn’t really follow the normal procedures. I would do something and then, frankly, I wouldn’t hear anything, because like I said, those marketing focus groups, that type of stuff, were not in the lab.
RG: I’m assuming there was no bonus connected to this for you guys.
MQ: No, and typically, in those days too, bonus didn’t even come up until there was production.
RG: Right. So, on that note, I know we’ve spoken about this in the past, you have no idea how many of these were actually produced?
MQ: I don’t. No.
RG: Typically with a run, it’s based—and this is according to Pete Takaichi—that if you’ve got your distributors, you’re doing a run minimal of about three hundred games because each distributor gets two for 150 distributors but this does not follow that model whatsoever.
HL: So were there production models?
MQ: To my knowledge, they never rose to what I would consider production. I’m not aware of a production line.
RG: So what would that mean exactly to your knowledge of what you count as production? What’s that number?
MQ: Well, I think it never got past the prototype stage.
RG: That’s what I was asking.
MQ: I would say there’s probably three maybe—less than five.
HL: Three to five sounds like a prototype run to me.
MQ: It does, yeah. I mean, in many cases, even in a production game, like say with Tempest or something, for field testing, you know, two games to prototypes generally would cover it.
RG: Now when you would do a prototype field test on Tempest, you would then have focus groups, you would have people talk to the operators, you would report how many would be installed per week, the profits. Do you recall any of that type of field testing, documentation, happening on this game?
MQ: None, no. If there was, I wasn’t privy to it.
RG: So the scenario could be and this is just hypothetical, is that they could place one of these at a commissary, for instance, and they would—whoever “they” is in this scenario—maybe it’s the army or Atari—would observe users in that environment. That’s one scenario for this if it even got that far.
MQ: If it got that far.
RG: Any thoughts on why this initiative never developed into full production?
MQ: I’d just be speculating. I really don’t have any idea. You know, I’ve heard people say that there was objection to the whole idea of working for the army within the company. I don’t remember hearing those sort of words in industrial design but that would have perhaps been in upper management, I don’t know. But no, I worked on it there. I went to FMC. I was trying to do the best I could with what I was given. And, as a designer, it was fun. It was very interesting. It was challenging. It was certainly something different and new. But then it just sort of quietly just ceased. And I went back to—probably, at that point, maybe turning my attention to Tempest I would think.
RG: It was the same time period.
HL: Other than the controls and in the Star Wars game, was there anything else that you took from this project that came back in any way, shape, or form?
MQ: I had a real appreciation for tank commanders. [laughing] Man, that is an environment that you can only imagine.
HL: Cramped you mean.
MQ: And I was just sitting in it in a warehouse. I mean, I can’t even imagine what it would be like in a war zone.
HL: And then you add the environmental aspect, if you’re in heat or in cold.
MQ: Oh, no doubt. And obviously they’re wearing some proper gear but I was in it going, oh my God, I can only imagine how deafening it must be in here. You know, just your ears—you’re in this machine. You’re literally in the bowels of a machine. And, you know, Vietnam had only ceased a little while before that.
HL: You already addressed this, so I wasn’t going to ask the question, but maybe I’ll ask the question anyway. Atari, in terms of its corporate culture and some of the people like Al Alcorn, for example, talk a lot about Berkeley and demonstrating and being lefties and that kind of thing. And so for me, as an outsider, it’s really mysterious that this project would’ve gotten legs and would’ve have gotten as far as it did without approval from the top of the company. I’m just speculating. So it seems like there might have been a little bit of a conflict within the company about accepting work like this.
MQ: I don’t know any other work or, you know, jobs or product lines that were anything close to this. To my knowledge, it was the only thing we ever did that had any kind of a hint of military. I mean, other than obviously gameplay, you know, that simulated that sort of thing.
RG: I think [Nolan] Bushnell’s gone on record quite a lot talking about coin-op, in particular, and never really producing games where other humans are dying or death being simulated, right, so usually it’s vehicles that we shoot. So to have that sort of ethos driving a company, at least in the midst of the early to mid-seventies is quite different. And I wonder if this is just indicative of the time change with the new president in office and also the space theme. All of a sudden, space warfare is replacing the driving game as a significant theme in games. I wonder if that’s another reason why this was seen as appealing to the company perhaps.
MQ: Yeah, perhaps. And the other thing about a company like Atari or any technology company that just runs on innovation. I mean, it consumes ideas because it needs to innovate. And sometimes I know my approach was, hey, this looks interesting. I’ll do it. At a minimum, I’m going to learn something and I’ll be a better designer for it. And perhaps, maybe that was one of the reasons why it became a project. Obviously somebody above me said this is worth pursuing, putting some of our talent and our energy toward it. Like a lot of things, it just didn’t end up in production. But, yeah, it was interesting times.
RG: I guess if you want to make a connection to it, in the late 1970s, early 1980s, Atari was really pushing new environments for its coin-op machines. So ads were going out in Convenience Store News to get things in 7-Eleven and restaurants. Today we look back and understand that is part of where games were in the 1980s. But it took a lot of effort to get machines into those spaces. And I think industrial design played a massive role in that. But navy ships were often targeted as well. So Atari was meeting with the navy, not to design games specifically for the navy, but to put the likes of 2 Game Module or other games onto navy ships. They figure that’s another place where you have idle time and pocket change, right? So let’s come in and scoop up that profit from sailors at sea. I think perhaps commissaries, military bases, were just another new location for Atari to invest in. What makes this stand out is they designed the game specifically for that space.
MQ: To my knowledge, we didn’t start off pursuing an army version. Obviously we’re doing a battle game. Hey, let’s see if we can leverage that. It’s my understanding that Army Battlezone was more serendipitous, that it just came to us, came to somebody’s attention in the army.
HL: There have been other instances, other times, when this kind of thing happened. I would imagine some of it might have been that the army wanted the association with Atari, rather than the other way around, right? You know, tech company in California, glamorous company at the time still in 1979, 1980.
MQ: It had to go on longer. It probably was not a good marriage probably from the start. It didn’t get past the honeymoon period. It is, looking back, a little hard to believe that that sort of 1970s culture in Silicon Valley was going to jive well with a, you know, military environment.
HL: That might be a great place to close.
[End of Interview with Mike Querio—July 9, 2019]
1. ^ One of the most detailed accounts of Army Battlezone appears in the form of The Arcade Blogger’s post, “Bradley Trainer: Atari’s Top Secret Military Project,” October 28, 2016, https://arcadeblogger.com/2016/10/28/bradley-trainer-ataris-top-secret-military-project/.